No man is an island, entire of itself

No man is an island, entire of itself

My short stay this summer on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, inspired me to think about some law-related issues: about law enforcement, the theory of Thomas Hobbes and the gift economy.

This summer I spent a few pleasant days (with my family and some friends) on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Our stay on this small island – that one can easily walk across in a few hours – has made me think about some law-related issues.

A small isolated community

The island is still permanently inhabited by a small community of less than 300 people, separated from other communities by a large body of water. It is blessed with bad phone reception, with limited access to the Internet and with hardly any cars. And, being completely surrounded by the Atlantic, nearly everywhere one gets drawn into impressive, constantly changing views. This all helps a lot to preserve an atmosphere of slowness, intimacy and peace.

Absence of law enforcement

One thing that struck me was that there is no police force on the island. The only police station on the Aran Islands appears to be on the biggest island, Inis Mor, and in case of trouble, it takes a half hour boat journey before the police can be present. Of course there have been incidents on the islands, even serious ones that hit the national news in Ireland. But in general the presence of the police is only needed here to check the closing times of the three pubs. When incidents occur, the people usually manage to deal with these themselves. This must have been the way things worked in small isolated communities all over the world.

Generous fishermen

One calm evening we sat down at the bay and watched some fishermen cleaning the fish they had caught earlier on. The cut-off fish heads drew many hungry seagulls near, squealing, circling the air, flying away with their catch. Even if the fishermen were doing this every evening, they were clearly enjoying it, taking their time and helping each other with the cleaning. Without hesitation they gave some of their cleaned fish away to islanders who were passing by. They offered us some as well, but we didn’t take it.

Echoes of our natural state

It is well known how Thomas Hobbes considered our natural state to be a war of all against all in which life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Watching the Inisheer fishermen, I realized again how outdated this view really is. Their lives might be hard enough at times, but as a far as I could see, the fish were the only creatures here with short lives! It’s true that the islanders are not human beings living in their natural state, but they are much nearer to it than most inhabitants of cities or urban areas. Anyway, it was clear to me that the people here don’t need the power of a government to civilize their ‘brutish’ life, or the presence of the police to enforce the law in a top-down way. People in small communities like this one – living in a remote place, surrounded by the powerful elements of the ocean – are generally friendly and willing to help each other. The closer to nature we come, the friendlier we get.

Traces of a gift economy

The good-natured, generous attitude of the fishermen brings an even more telling experience to mind. Some years ago we went camping for a few nights on the coast in County Sligo. Nearby was a small community with just a few houses, and one of those houses had been turned into a tiny shop. It was open only a few hours in the afternoon, and consisted merely of a large counter and a few shelves with products. It was run by a woman. We ordered some messages for our dinner, and when we asked for milk, the woman looked at us in distress: unfortunately she had no milk. Yet she asked us to wait a minute. She rushed out of the shop, obviously trusting us completely, and came back with an opened carton of milk. She had got the milk in her own house and offered us some! When we wanted to pay for it, she refused to take our money. In this remote place apparently it was normal practice to help people in need, even strangers who were just passing by.

I experienced a similar empathy and generosity on Inisheer. It’s paradoxical that you have to go to an island to realize that (in John Donne’s famous words) ‘no man is an island, entire of itself’.

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